Film reviews roundup: Truth of Dare, A Gentle Creature, Custody, The Titan

The latest Blumhouse horror, a Dostoevsky short story, the French Kramer vs. Kramer, and a sci-fi take on Frankenstein

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 11 April 2018 21:03 BST
Look out behind you... Lucy Hale plays Olivia in ‘Truth or Dare’
Look out behind you... Lucy Hale plays Olivia in ‘Truth or Dare’

Truth or Dare (15)


Jeff Wadlow, 100 mins, starring: Lucy Hale, Violett Beane, Tyler Posey, Sophia Taylor Ali, Landon Liboiron, Nolan Gerard Funk

Truth or Dare is one of the sillier offerings from producer Jason Blum, the crown prince of contemporary American horror (and the man behind hits from Paranormal Activity and Get Out to Insidious and The Purge.) It has a very flimsy ‘high concept’ premise.

A group of young college students go on their last spring break to Mexico for a few days of sex, sun and sangria. On their final night there they are lured to an old abandoned religious mission where they play a game of ‘truth or dare’.

The game turns out to be in deadly earnest. Back at college they are forced to keep on playing by some malevolent demonic force. If they forfeit their turn they die.

“It’s the game. It followed us home!” one character exclaims. “It’s playing us!” another agrees as the bloodcurdling incidents mount and the students perform ever more lethal dares and reveal devastating truths.

Truth Or Dare - Trailer

Early on the film has some of the same irreverent feel as Harmony Korine’s Springbreakers. The good-looking self-absorbed pampered college kids are relentless hedonists who see mojitos as useful study aids. The game very quickly reveals they are far more interested in their own well-being than in that of anyone else.

Even the main protagonist, Olivia (Lucy Hale), who had originally been planning to do humanitarian volunteer work during the spring break, has a ruthless survival instinct.

Every character here is hiding a secret and is suffering extreme anxiety as a result. Brad (Hayden Szeto) is gay but terrified about coming out to his dad, a homophobic cop. The fun-loving Markie (Violett Beane), who is Olivia’s best friend, is tormented by the suicide of her beloved father.

Olivia knows details about the father’s death that she has never shared. Medical student Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk) has been forging prescriptions.

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Director Jeff Wadlow throws in a fair amount of gore. We see heads colliding with pool tables, blood seeping out from under doors, characters being set on fire, the cutting out of tongues and hammer attacks.

When they’re playing the game the students will hallucinate that the demon is everywhere – that even their best friends are taunting them. Suddenly, these friends will start speaking in a hoarse, deep voice and will develop rictus-like smiles that make them look like the Joker in a bad Batman rip-off.

The real truth is that the film is very rarely frightening. Blum and his associates are trying hard to establish Truth or Dare as a franchise. There is something cynical in the way they try to tick off so many boxes. They don’t just want to appeal to horror fans.

This is a rites of passage story and a tale about the shifting sands of friendship among a group of entitled and narcissistic young Americans. It is also surprisingly topical – a horror picture for the social media age.

Cambridge Analytica may not have details of the characters’ Facebook accounts but the demon most certainly does. It contacts its victims by sending them text messages and gatecrashing their feeds.

A few moments of ingenuity aside, Truth or Dare is lacklustre filmmaking. Its premise is so contrived that any attempts at stirring up dread or suspense are stifled at the outset.

A Gentle Creature (18)


Sergei Loznitsa, 143 mins, starring: Vasilina Makovtseva, Liya Akhedzhakova, Valeriu Andriutã, Sergey Kolesov, Viktor Nemets, Boris Kamorzin

The title of Sergei Loznitsa’s new film comes from a celebrated 19th century Dostoevsky short story but the action is set firmly in contemporary Russia. The protagonist is a forlorn young woman (Vasilina Makovtseva) whose husband is in prison, far away, serving a sentence for murder. The plot revolves around her efforts to visit him and to deliver a parcel full of basic clothes and food stuffs.

If you’ve ever stood in a queue at a post office or travelled on an overcrowded bus, you will feel sympathy for the plight of Loznitsa’s hapless heroine. Everything and everybody is against this “gentle creature”. In the Kafkaesque world the director portrays with very grim humour, decency and justice are in short supply.

The husband is innocent but that doesn’t make any difference. He has been sentenced, which is all that counts. The woman lives in a little cottage in the countryside that she reaches by foot. She has a dead-end job at a garage – where few cars ever turn up to refuel.

Early on, the workers at the post office counter treats her with contempt, making her pay for the return of the parcel, which the prison hasn’t accepted. She then has to carry the parcel on the bus home while other passengers complain bitterly about how much space she is taking up.

When she is given the chance to visit the husband that means an epic – and excruciating – journey. Once she arrives the authorities won’t let her see him – and they won’t deliver the parcel to him either.

Loznitsa makes documentaries as well as fictional dramas. There is a brilliant scene here which plays like a moment from one of his factual films. We see a guard methodically going through everything in the parcel.

The food tins are emptied out, a pair of slippers is cut in half, cigarettes are torn to pieces. In theory, the guard is checking for contraband and hidden weapons. In practice, the goal is to humiliate the visitor and to ensure that the goods are ruined and provide no comfort to the prisoner whatsoever.

The woman, whose name we don’t learn, is a determined but reserved and delicate figure. She is far too refined to join in the boorish sing songs on the train or to take part in the drinking games at the house where she is forced to stay, waiting for the prison visit that may never happen.

She is surrounded by pimps, whores, lunatics and lowlifes. They all promise that they can “fix” things for her but none ever can. It’s debatable whether they even want to.

A Gentle Creature has a warped, nightmarish-like feel anyway. The one sequence here that grates is a prolonged dream sequence in which the gentle woman sees all the characters who’ve been tormenting her at a lavish dinner where they are all called on to make speeches.

The scene is unnecessary and has a gaudy self-consciousness out of place with the rest of the movie. Far more disturbing (and the reason for the film’s 18 certificate) is a phantasmagoric rape sequence.

This isn’t an overtly political film, but Loznitsa’s vision of Russia is bleak in the extreme. Cruelty and petty corruption are everywhere. “Man is like a wolf to his fellow man,” one character observes – and that’s an understatement. Grotesquerie abounds.

We encounter leering, drunken poets, imprisoned for writing children’s verse which the authorities misinterpreted, and fat, grotesque women who take a perverse pleasure in preying on their innocent new visitor. The human rights activist is just as distracted and unhelpful as anyone else.

We can tell from the outset that our unhappy heroine is condemned to wait and wait, with little chance of her wishes ever being granted. She is not the prisoner but is caught in a purgatorial world from which there is no escape.

Custody (15)


Xavier Legrand, 94 mins, starring: Léa Drucker, Denis Ménochet, Thomas Gioria, Mathilde Auneveux, Mathieu Saikaly, Florence Janas

Xavier Legrand’s Custody is like a French version of Kramer VS Kramer – but done as a brutal thriller instead of as a tearjerker. Some of its insights are similar to those found in the celebrated American movie. When a couple get divorced, it doesn’t mean they both stop loving one another.

The difference here is that instead of cuddly Dustin Hoffman, the husband, Antoine Besson (Denis Ménochet), is a tormented, boorish and abusive man. The mystery is why the long-suffering Miriam (Léa Drucker) married him in the first place.

Custody opens brilliantly, with a scene of the spouses’ lawyers making the cases for their clients. For the lawyers, this is just another case. Nonetheless, they argue very persuasively. As might be expected, money and access to the kids are the main subjects of debate.

The son has made a statement which implies that his father is a violent bully, but Antoine’s lawyer suggests that the boy’s youthful emotions have coloured his testimony. Antoine’s work colleagues describe him as an obliging and mature “leader”. If he appears truculent and aggressive, that may be because he is struggling to get over the break-up of the marriage.

'Custody' trailer

Early on Legrand’s approach is matter of fact, and the film has a documentary like feel. The practical questions have to be addressed, Miriam and her son and daughter need somewhere to live. Bills need to be paid. Only gradually do we realise that Antoine may indeed be unhinged.

He is quick to rage and wants to control every aspect of his family’s life, whether it’s his teenage daughter’s choice of boyfriend or when his son will wear his seat belt.

In the latter stages Custody changes dramatically in tone. What had appeared to be a naturalistic study of the break-up of a marriage turns into a violent thriller in which characters fight for their lives. We begin to understand the secrecy and shame which have clouded the children’s lives, and the way the entire family has been affected by Antoine’s behaviour.

Even the most mundane scenes – a family meal, a birthday party – are undercut with extreme tension. Arguably, the explosive final-reel showdown belongs in another film. Nonetheless, this is a chilling and well observed study of domestic violence that seems all the more powerful because of its director’s slow-burning approach.

The Titan (15)


Lennart Ruff, 95 mins, starring: Sam Worthington, Taylor Schilling, Tom Wilkinson, Agyness Deyn, Nathalie Emmanuel, Corey Johnson

The Frankenstein-style myth is given a new spin in sci-fi thriller The Titan. The film doesn’t have the budget to do justice to its own ambitions. It is set in Los Angeles in the near future. Earth is in chaos. War, overpopulation and environmental disaster have made the planet uninhabitable – although, in the corner of California in which the story is set, life goes on as much as before.

Gimlet-eyed scientist Prof Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson) has come up with a plan for humans to settle on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

In theory, humans won’t be able to survive here but Collingwood aims to use advanced genetics (“forced evolution”) to give them the super-human powers they need to withstand the extreme conditions they will face. A group of hardy souls led by Lieutenant Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington) are chosen to lead the first mission.

Rick is a devoted family man, married to scientist Dr Abigail Janssen (Taylor Schilling, from Orange Is the New Black), with a young son he dotes on. As he and the other team members are given intensive training and fed powerful drugs, their bodies and their personalities gradually change.

They can go without oxygen for prolonged periods and withstand immense cold. They swim as fast as dolphins. They eventually begin to look like aliens. They also become hyper-aggressive. Their Frankenstein-like mentor Collingwood and his assistant Dr Upton (Agyness Deyn) can’t control them.

Rick is so devoted to his wife and kid that he is able to maintain some semblance of his old humanity. Abigail sees through Coillingwood’s plans and realises that he is just another mad scientist, more interested in seeing his experiment work than in saving humanity.

The Titan is disappointingly earthbound fare. Very little of the film is set in space. Most of the action unfolds in Rick’s modernist LA home or in Collingwood’s labs. Director Lennart Ruff wants to serve up both a dystopian, Alien-style parable, and a story in which love and family conquers all. It’s an unwieldy mix that makes for a frustrating movie.

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